Routinization, Rationalization, Renunciation: Max Weber’s Account of Christian Asceticism and Critical Theory

Below is a slightly modified version of the paper I delivered at AAR last weekend for the Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group. The panel was titled “The Frankfurt School: Foundations and Fixations.” My paper perhaps falls under the former more than the latter of that pair, though I think it addresses some “fixations” as well, namely the commodity form as the central point of critique in most analyses of capitalism under the heading “Critical Theory.”

 In Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism we find three different types of rationalization at work in the construction of this ethic and the subsequent spirit, which arises from what Weber calls the “inner-worldly asceticism” of Reformed Protestants. This reading of Weber, while I think quite plain from a careful examination of the text, complicates the more or less standard intellectual history which reads “rationalization” as co-terminous and interchangeable with “instrumental reason,” and, perhaps even more germane to the Frankfurt School, also complicates Georg Lukács’ appropriation of the term in History and Class Consciousness in the formation of his concept, reification. The aim, then, is to show that Weber’s analysis can offer an important supplement to what has become the dominant way of reading capitalist economy in critical theory. My conclusion is that though reification is indeed a modified version of Weber’s “rationalization,” the construction of the concept such that it subsumes all “logics” of being-in-the world to the commodity form, reduces Weber’s concept to one “type” and flattens the complexity of “rationalizations” at work in the formation of contemporary capitalism in Weber’s view. In other words, where Lukács identifies a single ideology that must be overcome, Weber sees a complex web of calculative moves, none of which are necessarily ideological in the sense of being epiphenomenal of capitalist economy and all of which contribute to the logic of contemporary capitalism.

Reification, as Lukács defines it, is the calculative process by which something that is non-commodity becomes objective commodity. Lukács’ primary example is Marx’s reading of the commodification of labor as the commodification and thus objectification of a social relationship—something that, prior to capitalism, would have been irrational. All subjectivity is removed from labor in order that it might be quantifiable, calculable, and exchangeable. However, Lukács’ rendering of the term extends beyond Marx’s reading in positing this phenomenon as the universal structure of modern capitalist society. In other words, not only are social relations reified, but everything is subject to reification via the objective, calculative logic of the capitalist system. In “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Lukács writes that the commodity itself “can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it.” In other words, via reification, commodity has become “the form of objectivity” itself, the “natural” logic of existence within the capitalist system, subsuming all spheres of life to itself.

The “logic” of reification in Lukács and Weber’s rationalization run parallel to one another in their rejection of that which falls outside their scope as irrational. For Lukács, the reason reification has become so successfully dominant in modern capitalist society is its ideological dominance over all other ways of being in the world. That is, all activity and ways of viewing the world which do not cohere with the “rational calculative” practices from within the closed logic of the rational-reified system, are rejected. Weber’s concept, as we shall see, does contain a very similar aspect; however, at the outset, it is important to note a few crucial differences between these two accounts. First, unlike Lukács who is very clearly drawing from both Marx and Weber (as well as Georg Simmel) in synthesizing a precise definition of reification, Weber himself is not entirely clear on what he means by rationalization. Indeed, interpreters of Weber, perhaps most famously Talcott Parsons and Anthony Giddens, have noted the inconceivability of any attempt to systematize Weber’s methodology across his corpus. Thus, my claims in this second part are not an attempt at a systematization of Weber’s thought, even regarding this one concept.

It is clear that one can always use the word “calculation” in describing Weberian rationalization. It is a psychological calculation aimed at bringing seemingly disparate parts from the various spheres of life into coherence with one another. Furthermore, we must also note that these types need not be mutually exclusive. Especially in The Protestant Ethic, they appear to work in concert with one another, which perhaps adds to the difficulty of distinguishing them in this text. Though Weber does define rationalization in The Protestant Ethic, our best definition of rationalization comes from Weber’s essay “The Social Psychology of the World’s Religions.” Weber writes,

We have to remind ourselves in advance that “rationalism” may mean very different things. It means one thing if we think of the kind of rationalization the systematic thinker performs on the image of the world: an increasing theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts. Rationalism means another thing if we think of the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means. These types of rationalism are very different, in spite of the fact that ultimately they belong inseperately together. […] The rationalization of life conduct with which we have to deal here can assume unusually varied forms.

We should first note that Weber’s concept has a different type of universal character than Lukács’. While reification is an ideological universal calculative process, which subsumes all spheres of life, rationalization as Weber describes it here seems to be a calculative feature which, as Weber writes in the Protestant ethic, has “existed in various departments of life and in all areas of culture.” In other words, the type of rationalization implemented is not necessarily dependent upon the cultural sphere in which it appears; the aesthetic, religious, or political spheres, for example, do not require their own specific types of rationalization. Rather, each type may take a different form if implemented in a particular sphere.

Weber’s first “type” is instrumental rationalization, which he describes as theoretical mastery of reality. This is the type with which we should be the most familiar at this point: the instrumentalization of nature in order to meet needs, the justification of belief in the untrammeled and inevitable progress of science, or even the objectification of subjective social relations into commodities. While there is nothing inherently religious about this first type of rationalization, the next has explicitly religious origins. Teleological rationalization is oriented toward ultimate values and ends but as they are explicitly salvific and thus ultimate in a religious sense and is what Weber means by “the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end.” It is the reorientation of the world toward this practical end, viz. salvation, and involves the working out of a theodicy such that the promises of the savior (the ultimate values) cohere with the evil that the believer encounters. One must be able to know one is saved despite the apparent evil of the world.

Weber sees this developing in Calvinism first from a revised conception of God, writing that, for the Calvinist, God is “[A] transcendental being, beyond the reach of human understanding, who with His quite incomprehensible decrees has decided the fate of every individual and regulated the tiniest details of the cosmos from eternity.” This totally irrational conception of God, in the sense that human rationality can never approach the will of God, demands the teleological rationalization that Weber describes. Therefore, though salvation itself is a gift of grace from God, assurance of salvation is a thoroughly rationalistic endeavor with specific practical consequences. Weber still has one more mode of rationalization in mind however because the teleological type neither prescribes nor proscribes the proper behaviors necessary in order to secure this assurance.

This third type, ethical, can “assume unusually varied forms” for Weber it is simply the organization of life around the particular values one holds; a behavior is rationalized as ethical if it coheres with the values present in one’s life. These values are derived from all spheres of life and from both instrumental and teleological rationalization. This is perhaps a frustratingly nebulous way of defining “ethical rationalization;” however, reading this definition into Lukács’ account brings to light a deficiency in the latter. For Weber, it is ultimately the ethical rationalization of particular patterns of behavior in Calvinism on the basis of a previous teleological rationalization that is the driving force behind the development of the Protestant ethic that creates the spirit of capitalism. Calvinist teleology demands that all activity in the world be rationalized such that it can point one to the assurance of salvation. In light of the absence of sacrament, this must be done through moral behavior, a recasting of Christian activity as “solely activity ad majorem Dei gloriam.” This final move necessitates ethical rationalization in order to have psychological certainty that all one does brings glory to God. One’s activity must be constantly morally justified in order to cast oneself as a “tool of the divine will.”

The assurance of salvation is demanded at all times since, for Weber, one is from eternity either elected or damned. Thus this creation of assurance “cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one’s credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen of damned. […] The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system.” This system is ultimately what Weber is attempting to explicate through the employment of rationalization as a conceptual tool. Teleological rationalization gives Calvinism the form for the relationship between believer, God, and salvation while ethical rationalization provides the specific content that helps the believer cohere his personal relationship to this structure. Weber calls this system “inner-worldly asceticism.” This is a double asceticism in the sense that one is simultaneously rejecting and remaking the world in order to rationalize one’s being-in-the-world as worthy of God’s glory. Once the teleological concern drops away from Weber’s structure (as in his example of Benjamin Franklin in The Protestant Ethic) we are left with an ethical “spirit of capitalism.” Weber defines this as the accumulation of money for the sake of money itself. This occurs via a set of rational, ethical calculations, which include the rejection of greed coupled with value of hard work reflected in how much one is able to earn. This brings into a unity all economic activity operating according to this spirit regardless of religious belief.

We can now see the relationship between these two structures and the difficulty of drawing a straight trajectory from Weber’s concept through Lukács and into the analysis of later figures such as Horkheimer and Adorno. The primary difference between our two structures, of course, is that the center of the structure for Lukács is the commodity form under the logic of reification rather than money itself. The dominance of instrumental rationalization in Lukács’ structure, is intended to highlight a problem which Marx had already explicated with regard to liberal democracy in “A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” namely the illusory non-normativity of the structure of contemporary capitalism. In other words the reification of subjectivity into the commodity form introduces a kind of non-normative (i.e. non-ethical) relation between subject and commodity, commodity and other commodities, subjects and other subjects, and subjects and the structure of society as a whole. This calculative move serves the function of concealing the true, exploitative relationship between subjects and subjects-become-commodities. If labor is merely another commodity with exchange value, there is no necessary ethical imperative—except to protect the rights of subjects to reify other subjects into commodities, rights that are themselves taken to be “natural.”

It is in this moment that Weber’s analysis provides an interesting compliment to Lukács. Weber introduces a different imperative, another rationalized calculative move that is not a non-normative operation, but a radically ethical one—the cultivation of particular virtues whose sole end is the accumulation of money for money’s own sake. If we read Weber’s analysis of this ethic back into Lukács, then we achieve a much more complex picture of the motivations behind ways of being in contemporary capitalist economy. Not only are laborers trapped by their reification into commodities, but they perhaps willingly accept this reification on the basis of an ethical belief in hard work, frugality, honesty, punctuality, etc. strictly as a means of accumulating money. In other words, what Weber’s account gives us is a much more textured analysis of the functional attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of capitalist economy. It is a starting point for understanding how capitalism has been so resilient in the face of impending collapse: strong ethical attitudes that tie together money and morality.

Conservative Christianity and the Rhetoric of (In)tolerance

I’m taking a quick break in the middle of the series to address something I’ve found very interesting recently. Part 3 should be up tomorrow.

I’m not really in the business of searching the Internet for conservative rhetoric on issues like gay marriage, contraception, etc. I do try to stay abreast of the “opposing side’s” point of view like any engaged citizen should, but in the same way that it’s probably difficult for conservatives, I have a really hard time sorting out legitimate arguments–or arguments from those whom conservatives would consider legitimate figures–and absolute wacko garbage. Thankfully (or unfortunately, as the case may be), Facebook quite often brings the more legitimate articles to my doorstep as it were on a fairly regular basis. One such article caught my eye recently, posted by one of Lucas’s “acquaintances” which garnered over 50 comments, most directed at Lucas who was attempting to bring clarity to the conversation.

The blog post, by someone named Matt Walsh, can be found here. The blog is titled “If you want to prove you don’t hate the gays, all you have to do is worship at their feet,” and in a contemporary world of click-baity Buzzfeed-isms, I found that to be rather refreshing. I knew exactly what I was getting into before I even read the first sentence of the article.

Or I thought I did.

From the very first paragraph, I encountered something I’d not yet seen, at least not at the level of strength and emphasis with which Walsh was writing. Assuming many of our readers wouldn’t waste their time clicking on the link to the article, here’s the first paragraph:

I have never in my life encountered a religion as oppressive, cold, and stiff as Progressivism. I’ve never known a faith more eager to burn heretics at the stake. Even a fundamentalist Iranian Muslim would flinch if he came face to face with a western liberal’s rigid dogmatism. I imagine that even a Saudi Arabian Islamic cleric would take one look at how American left wingers react when anyone deviates ever so slightly from their established orthodoxy, and say to himself, “man, these people REALLY need to chill.”

I’m really not trying to condescend when I say that I was utterly shocked by the diction and tone of this opening paragraph. It honestly read to me like a parody–as if someone were making a joke by parodying the language of progressivism directed toward fundamentalism and reversing the positions.

But no, Matt Walsh is completely serious. I say it’s a parody because while some progressives perhaps have used language like “eager to burn heretics,” “rigid dogmatism,” or “established orthodoxy” to describe conservative Christianity, “progressives” ranging from the more conservative and clearly still Evangelical like Rachel Held Evans to the more Leftist like Adam Kotsko have shifted away from what are now sort of tired and well-worn ways of talking about conservative Christianity.

Here we have a conservative who has caught on to the cultural power of this kind of “fundamentalist bashing” discourse in post- or late-postmodern culture and is attempting to turn the very weapon used against him for a while now back onto “the liberals.” That in and of itself is absolutely fascinating to me, but there’s a much more basic point that I want to make here because unfortunately what could’ve been a very interesting read–what I thought was an actual moment of shift in the language of conservative Christianity–turned out to be the same old boring crap peddled through what is becoming increasingly more and more hostile language. That is, Matt Walsh thinks the liberals are hypocrites for being intolerant of what they see as intolerant opinion.

Progressivism, at least in the Christian context, is not nor has it ever been about the tolerance of all opinion. In some more Leftist strands (e.g. Kotsko), the discussion ends there (i.e. intolerance of bigotry with an ethical imperative in some cases to not forgive), and in others, this understanding of tolerance is carefully balanced with the call to forgive. In other words, the far Left has a problem with the idea forgiveness in all cases being touted as radical and moderates tend to want to find a way to mediate between intolerance of positions like racism and forgiveness for racists who repent.

That’s a ham-fisted representation (sorry) but I really want to just make one thing especially clear: The word tolerance does not imply, nor has it ever implied, the acceptance of all positions. The argument from Walsh and nearly every other conservative is something like: “You claim to be tolerant, but you’re intolerant of what you think is intolerance (i.e. my own opinion)!”

Yeah, no shit!

Tolerance doesn’t have any meaning if it doesn’t have the freedom to not tolerate intolerance when it sees it. By the way–progressives aren’t even interested in tolerance. Tolerance is the lowest form of acceptance of another person or idea. When you say you tolerate your neighbor practicing the accordion terribly at eight in the evening every night, you’re saying that you’re doing everything in your power not to go next door and smash it over his head. Tolerance can coexist with active mental hatred.

So to even apply tolerance to progressive Christians as if it’s their modus operandi is perhaps a misnomer. We’re not asking others to “tolerate” people of color, the LGBT community, women, etc. We’re after full participation, a recognition that folks like myself who are not members of traditionally oppressed communities need to do a lot more listening to those communities and active reflection on the places of power into which we come. And we refuse to even tolerate those who think they have the right to hate speech and bigotry. In other words, if you’re a racist, a bigot, a homophobe, a misogynist, or just a good old fashioned asshole, I’m going to call you that and not feel bad about it–even as a Christian–because I don’t think any of those things have a place in the Kingdom of God.

Regarding Religious Language: Spinoza’s Political Theology

I’d like to reflect on something that I picked up on in reading Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus a few weeks ago. Right from the beginning I was fascinated by the way in which Spinoza talks about God, consistently anthropomorphizing God in the standard way theology has done in order to speak of a personal God: i.e. “God said,” “God did,” “God demands,” etc.

The problem, of course, is that Spinoza doesn’t think that “God” is a personal God in any way. For Spinoza, as detailed in his Ethics, God is the totality of the universe. God is an infinite, necessary, self-subsisting, uncaused substance with two attributes, extension and thought. That isn’t to say that our physical world is God. Rather, by positing God as Nature, Spinoza means that God is the only substance that there is, and we (and every other physical thing) are modes of that substance. In other words, there are two sides to Nature: Natura naturans (naturing Nature) and Natura naturata (natured Nature.) God is the former, the sustaining activity that causes everything else. The physical world is the latter, sustained and produced by the former. Consequently, we also take part in the mind of God. Therefore, for Spinoza, knowledge of the natural world (what he calls natural knowledge in the TTP) is also, in his special sense, knowledge of God. The more one can stop seeing the world as individual, disconnected substances and events and begin being able to see that world is actually a unity, the more knowledge one is gaining of God.

This way of conceiving of God, though the argument is not worked out until the Ethics, frames Spinoza’s entire discussion of Judaism and Christianity in the TTP which, for me, gives rise to a really interesting phenomenon that I want to explore here briefly regarding Spinoza’s method in the TTP. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge at the outset that one of the likely reasons Spinoza uses the language that he does is his fear of the Dutch government. There’s no getting around the fact that Spinoza’s conception of God would have been (and was posthumously) seriously problematic for church authorities. So in one sense we could say that Spinoza is simply disguising his metaphysic in language that would be palatable to those authorities whom he rightly feared.

But on the other hand, I think I have to agree with Spinoza scholars who argue that Spinoza seems to be obsessed with the idea of God. It would be a mistake, then, to read Spinoza as merely prefiguring scientific material accounts of religion a la the New Atheists, in effect explaining away religion or pulling back the curtain, so to speak, in order to reveal what’s really happening–that behind religious language, ideas, and practice, there is a natural explanation. If that’s all Spinoza were doing, then why insist on retaining all of the religio-theological language? I don’t think fear of persecution is strong enough.

For example, in the first two chapters, Spinoza addresses the ideas of prophecy and prophets, concluding that there should be no sharp distinction between natural knowledge and prophetic knowledge, since all true knowledge simply is knowledge of God. What the prophet brings is a particular imaginative power to knowledge, giving it its peculiar quality. The prophet, then, is someone who has this capacity, who is receptive to the way God “chooses to speak” to him. In other words, Spinoza is content to say that when someone like Joshua sees the sun stop in the sky, we shouldn’t criticize the account on the basis of our knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun and not the other way around. Everyone in Joshua’s day, including Joshua, thought the opposite; hence, the sun stopping in the sky would make sense to them. Spinoza suggests that “God speaks” even through what seems like insanity to us today (e.g. the visions of Daniel.)

Note that this prophetic knowledge for Spinoza, even when based upon something that we today understand as scientifically erroneous, is still real knowledge. All real knowledge is knowledge of nature, and Spinoza’s claim is that prophetic knowledge really is natural knowledge. For this reason, it’s a mistake, I think, to read his account as strictly removing the special status from prophetic knowledge, viz. reducing the prophetic to the natural. Because of how Spinoza has defined God, all knowledge in his special sense is “revelatory.” That may be too far for some readers, but I think it’s fair to say that his understanding of the relationship between God and nature allows for that step. I think a better way to read Spinoza here is that instead of demoting or demystifying the prophetic, he’s heightened the status of natural knowledge. This puts Spinoza’s account in this odd place of reading as reductive but not actually being reductive. He is giving a natural account of the supernatural but writing as if supernatural language still retains some meaning and relevance.

The as if I think is what is most important in this text. Spinoza, the arch-atheist of the 18th and 19th centuries, is actually advocating for what he thinks is a politically viable religion such that religion is a necessary component of society. In other words, for all the talk about Spinoza’s God being non-personal, pantheistic, etc., he sure does speak very seriously as if God is not those things. E.g., Spinoza on what his new, politically viable faith requires in chapter 14:

Hence it follows that a catholic or universal faith must not contain any dogmas that good men may regard as controversial; for such dogmas may be to one man pious, to another impious, since their value lies only in the works they inspire. A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible.

Just a few paragraphs later, he details seven tenets of this faith that include God’s existence, omnipresence (both uncontroversial Spinozist was of viewing God), God’s “supreme right and dominion over all,” worship and obedience to God consisting “solely in justice and charity, or love towards one’s neighbour,” etc.

Here, it seems to me that Spinoza is not making a case for how to regard religion (i.e. as a mistaken understanding of nature); rather, he’s making a case for how to regard the political religiously. To take it a step further (but maybe too far), this is a case for how one could and should regard reality religiously–or at least the experience of reality (though the latter is not Spinozist.)

To dial it back for a moment, I think it would be reaching too far to say that Spinoza intended the TTP to be anything more than a rendering of religion as a political theology that could be accepted “universally” and uncontroversially with the shadow of the religious wars of the 17th century looming in the background. But I’m interested in this idea of regarding as a methodology, as it has echoes both in Kant’s account of religion and in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century among neo-Kantians like Heinrich Rickert, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber.

(I’m planning a post on Rickert for the not-too-distant future.)

The Construction of the Bourgeois Citizen-Subject in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

We haven’t posted for a while, which is mostly my fault since last quarter was absolutely insane for me. This quarter looks to allow for a little more regularity.

I left off on the question of subjectivity in Kant, and though I could spend many more posts exploring the relationship between subjectivity and knowledge, I’d like to move on to something else, which gets us closer to critical theory; namely the relationship between subjectivity and freedom. It’s no surprise that Kant’s account of the subject raises a host of problems but two in particular are of interest here:

1) If all perceptions are mine including time and space, what is it that connects those perceptions together and ensures that it is still me from moment to moment? (In other words, what makes me a unity?)

2) Given this view of knowledge, what must I do and how is that to be accomplished?

The answer to both questions is essentially “the transcendental soul which is absolutely free” in Kant and Kantianism. It is your soul which is a nouminous object and absolutely free that unites your perceptions transcendentally (because nouminous objects are in themselves unities) and it is because of this freedom that you can fulfill your duty to the highest good by binding yourself to the moral law.

The question of freedom is vitally important and hotly contested in Kant’s time. If the universe is mechanistically determined (Newton), how can anyone be held responsible for anything one does? Thus, the commitment to freedom and explaining human action (i.e. history) in terms of freedom is of paramount importance at the turn of the 19th century. Freedom becomes the new foundation of ethical life.

We need to understand this shift in terms of what is new about freedom in the 19th century. In Aristotle, the law is coterminous with justice; that is, lawful acts are just acts and vice versa. The law forces us to behave justly in relation to others. Therefore, individuals have rights (or anything resembling rights as we understand them) only in the context of a just, lawful order. There is a priority of objective law to subjective rights. The law governs through educating and producing virtuous people. This outcome justifies the force of law–not even parents have the authority of this force. Only the political community can produce virtuous, law-abiding citizens. Therefore, the power of the law is internally unlimited. In this sense, the law has authority over both public and private life. There is, in fact, no sharp distinction between public and private (outer and inner) life, since the law has the responsibility and the authority to shape both. Introducing those terms here is already extending beyond the juridical concerns of the ancient world.

Jumping forward quite a bit, this view changes most significantly with Hobbes. In Hobbes, we find that the law cannot reach particular areas of private life (e.g. thoughts.) Law has a natural limitation. This introduction of the natural as it relates to law is vitally important here. In Hobbes (and later Locke, Rousseau, etc.) we find the introduction of the idea of natural rights that belong to the individual. Whereas in Aristotle, the law is what defined the rights of the political subject, in Hobbes, et. al., the authority of the law ends when it reaches natural rights. The law is circumscribed by them. This changes the function of the law. Now the law exists in order to secure the natural rights of the political subject. This is, for Marx, a “natural-normative” dialectic in which natural rights are taken to be pre- or non-normative in the precise sense that they simply are. They exist in nature and the fact of their existence is not a normative claim. That is, it is not that natural rights ought to exist–they simply do exist. The normative element enters when the law secures those rights as inscrutable, when the law protects their naturalness.

I don’t want to jump to Marx just yet, however. First, I want to look at the how Hegel constructs a citizen-subject on the basis of the above political-legal structure in The Philosophy of Right. As mentioned, absolute freedom has become the new foundation of ethical life. The ontological role of freedom in Hegel is far, far more complex than I am covering here. Absolute freedom is an historical process, an unfolding in history (as compared to Kant, who argues that we have absolute freedom already.) The idea of development is vital for what now follows. Freedom is two primary activities for Hegel which unite in a third:

1) Freedom is the capacity to abstract from everything–to not be determined by any specific determination. In other words, certain truths do not have certain necessary consequences, particularly when it comes to choosing how to act. For example, the fact that I am an American does not determine that I act in accordance with whatever that label means to other Americans. I can choose to not be determined by that category.

2) Freedom is also the reverse of this–the capacity to give yourself to a determination as a reason for choosing how to act.

3) Finally, freedom is self-determination. It is the unity of both aspects. It is to abstract from all determinations and posit oneself as determined.

Freedom unfolds through self-determination. These determinations, however, require that there be others in order to differentiate between determinations. This establishes a particular relation to others for Hegel. He writes that the other is actually not an external limitation; it is yourself appearing as something external. What the other wants is part of a social relation, becomes part of your own will. One cannot have freedom as Hegel understands it apart from a social relation. To be a part of a social structure is the condition of the possibility of freedom as self-determination. The social relation precedes the individual.

This includes a special role for education as well. Remember that for Aristotle, education is something external (the law) being imposed upon the subject in order to make it a political subject. In Hegel, education (Bildung) is an internal activity grounded in social relations. Education in Hegel’s sense is not the gaining of specific skills–it is becoming skillful. This “skillfulness” is essentially a learning how to be a social being, learning the relations of one’s will (self-determination) to something it is not. This isn’t simply an inter-subjective understanding, but a way that subjects see themselves as part of a social relation which is prior to their individuality. This includes estimating consequences, determining what is good and bad for the self in order to alter drives, and eventually trying to orient oneself toward happiness, which is a rather utilitarian way of thinking about it. But note that what is chosen is ultimately a self-determination–not something imposed by the external force of the law. The law instead secures the individual’s ability to choose.

Bildung ultimately consists of generalizing oneself so that the will may be transformed into an ethical-social self-determining subject. Generalization is what allows one to participate in the social. In other words, if I want to participate in a community of any size, including my immediate family, I have to give up some of the particularities that constitute me as an individual subject when I enter into a social relation. I can’t force everyone to like the food I like, go to bed and wake up when I do, read philosophy and theology, etc. The highest form of this participation, for Hegel, is ethical participation: the free will that desires free will, that wills itself. Freedom becomes our actual way of life such that we live the good itself.

What we’ve reconstructed here is one version of what Marx will later call the bourgeois subject. In short, Hegel has instrumentalized the state for bourgeois society. The generalization of the individual is not truly general–it is directed at a particular set of social relationships, outside of which an individual cannot participate in the community–especially the economic. In the next few posts that I write, I will focus on the Marxist response which sets the stage for Weber’s analysis of this structure (which is what I’m really interested in.)

Dave Ramsey and the Spirit of Capitalism

Three blog posts began circulating last week that I think give us the opportunity for some serious reflection on the relationship of Christianity to economy. The first was an article written by Tom Corley that appeared both on his own website and then on Dave Ramsey’s site called 20 Things the Rich Do Everyday. A commentary addendum was tacked on to the end of the list: A response from Ramsey answering all of the negative criticism the post received. In this response, he calls negative respondents “doctrinally shallow” and “spiritually immature,” telling them to “Grow up.” This sparked a host of immediate responses, most notably Rachel Held Evans who wrote this response on CNN’s religion blog in which she points out the obvious fallacy in the list Ramsey defends: Correlation does not equal causation. That is, many of the “habits” of the poor likely stem from their poverty rather than the other way around. This point was emphasized strongly in the most recent blog to circulate: 20 things the poor do everyday.

What’s most interesting to me are the strongly polarized conversations regarding capitalism and Marxism that crop up when stories like this break. Quite the same thing occurred last week in response to Pope Francis’ first major treatise that in part questioned the dominance of global capitalism in the context of the need to care for the poorest among us–an economic position on social justice which the Catholic Church has held for quite some time and is not necessarily Marxist.

A major part of the problem, it seems to me, is that most people don’t have a clear understanding of what capitalism really is to begin with. A view that seems to circulate strongly among Christians (and many others) is that capitalism means “free enterprise” broadly, or variously, defined. That is, what capitalism affords is the freedom to be able to be compensated for labor, for a skill, for an invention, a business of one’s own choosing through the effort of hard work and thus be able to achieve success that will allow one to live and hopefully live comfortably. The problem is that this conception of what it means to work in order to survive is not unique to contemporary capitalism. All sorts of capitalistic endeavors, from speculation to the financing of wars for monetary gain have existed in many places and times. This is one of the early arguments that drive’s Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber, whose aim is to define and then locate the primary originating factor of “the spirit of capitalism,” emphasizes the importance of understanding that modern capitalism is not simply a matter of earning in order to survive. Furthermore, he notes that the existence of an aristocracy, a bourgeois class, is not limited to capitalism either. Capitalism cannot be defined as unlimited greed. That is, greedy rich people have existed in other economic systems as well. Ultimately, the spirit of capitalism, Weber argues, is the rationalization of the accumulation of wealth for the sake of wealth itself.

To illustrate this point and the difference between this definition and the others, he cites a passage from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which Franklin espouses this financial advice:

Remember this saying, The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse. He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, and on any occasion, raise all the money his friends can spare. This is sometimes of great use. After industry and frugality, nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings; therefore never keep borrowed money an hour beyond the time you promised, lest a disappointment shut up your friend’s purse forever.

The passage cited is much, much longer. Weber notes that what Franklin advises is not just a way of simply surviving in the world–there is a particular ethic here. This is absolutely crucial: Franklin is not simply giving sound financial advice. Weber describes the ethic thus:

Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues […] In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudœmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational.

The telos of this sort of wealth-earning is not to live an absurdly extravagant lifestyle (i.e. hedonism)–which may seem counterintuitive to what we normally think of when we think of the “evils of capitalism.” There is a necessary frugality, a temperance which ensures that money will always be earned and nothing else.

Weber’s central thesis, that it is a particular Reformed Protestant ethic originating from the doctrine of predestination that gives rise to this spirit of capitalism, certainly contains flaws and for a long time has not been taken seriously. Let’s set that aside for a moment and take the fact that Ramsey is a Reformed Protestant as coincidence. Regardless of the origin of the spirit of capitalism, Ramsey’s emphasis on “virtuous choices” is hauntingly similar to Weber’s analysis of Franklin (Weber published this text as an article in 1904-5 and then as a book in 1920.) Note Ramsey’s three factors of poverty:

1. Personal habits, choices and character;
2. Oppression by people taking advantage of the poor;
3. The myriad of problems encountered if born in a third-world economy.

He separates out the third as irrelevant to the first two (which is absolutely baffling.) Even more baffling are his next few sentences:

If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

What happened to the second factor on his list? The spirit of capitalism dictates his dismissal of it. On Ramsey’s account, the second is actually the fault of the poor themselves. The cultivation of character (virtue) is the primary factor in determining one’s financial success, and it is an autonomously willed endeavor. One has the ability to transcend all environmental factors in order to participate in this ethic. If the poor don’t, then they are subjecting themselves to oppression by allowing themselves to be taken advantage of. (The state lottery is Ramsey’s example of this.)

I think understanding capitalism this way is important because it moves the conversation about how best to serve the poor away from a capitalism/Marxism distinction (which is absurd anyway), away from a debate about “hard workers” and “lazy people,” and toward an important conversation about the role of money in the life of a Christian. 

That is, we do need to raise questions about systemic oppression, but we also need to help people see how money functions in their lives. There isn’t anything wrong with Dave Ramsey wanting to help people get out of debt and take control of their finances. I’m sure my wife and I could benefit a lot from what he has to say. That itself is not necessarily a capitalistic or oppressive endeavor. Yet, Ramsey would probably answer the comparison of himself to Franklin (or Weber’s sketch of Franklin) by saying that one earns wealth not for the sake of wealth but in order to “Live like no one else so you can give like no one else.”

Here’s where Weber is important in reading this: Giving generously is all well and good, but unfortunately, one is still earning money for the sake of money–it’s just money one can give away.

Can giving money to charity accomplish some good? Absolutely. But what is vastly more important than that is being able to see the role that money plays in our lives in forming an ethic that drives how we see the world around us. If we firmly believe that one’s situation is solely determined by a particular set of capitalistic virtues that one cultivates, then of course one is going to see everyone in poverty as having failed at or been too lazy to cultivate those virtues.

Contrary to Ramsey’s claim, there is nothing Biblical about earning money for the sake of money. One could more or less make the case that honesty, frugality, punctuality, and industry are virtues that can be found somewhere in the Bible, but, as Weber notes, they are not necessarily connected to the capitalistic spirit–the capitalistic spirit made them that way. Jesus, on the other hand, has some more direct things to say about our relationships to others. They usually have to do with serving the poor, disdaining wealth, allowing yourself to be taken advantage of–all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. There’s no such thing as a taker who doesn’t work hard enough–just a division between those who give all to serve the poor and those who oppress them.

On Justice Part 2

This is the second part of a series on justice that began quite a while ago here. In that post, I posed this question:  Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation? To put it another way, why should God’s justice ultimately be a penal justice? I also acknowledged that the first post was leaving things a bit messy. We’re going to begin to untangle some of that here.

I want to point out up front that, despite the title, this post is not going to be primarily about justice; rather, I want to set up the current situation that gives rise to the questionable conception of justice I outlined in the last post–namely, the moralization of justice.

To do that, we need to first examine the concept of sin. In western Protestant traditions, sin has been conceived of in two partially related ways. First, it is the general condition of human beings (Original Sin) that we are born into and must “work” to get out of by accepting the grace offered to us through faith. Second, there are individual “sins” that are indicative of the more general condition but which can themselves be identified, outlined, placed in hierarchy, and appropriately condemned. This condemnation is a markedly different formulation than what we find in the Catholic tradition. In pre-Reformation Catholicism, acts of sin are counted against you in a sort of running tally with your works of righteousness; the more righteous you are, the less time spent in purgatory. But in the Protestant tradition, broadly, the condemnation of sin is tantamount to the rejection of the world which is always at odds with the kingdom of God. This was by no means Luther’s view. It doesn’t quite accurately describe Calvin either, but it was the Reformed movement that gave rise to a strong version of this understanding in America.

The Puritans, who were Calvinists, held two narratives together that deeply shaped the way they viewed the world and how God interacts with it. First, was the narrative of persecution–what is called a “jeremiad.” The Puritans (who really were persecuted in England) believed that they were the only truly elect. They saw themselves as a pure (hence the name) distillation of what it is to be a member of the elect and as the last bastian of morality and decency among a rapidly degenerating, horrifically evil world (which included Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestants.) They fled to the New World in order to establish the City of God, free from the dangers that the evil outside world presented. Second is their understanding of how God acts in the world, which is also necessarily tied to their belief in election. While they believed in election, they also believed it was impossible to know for sure who was actually elect. But they thought that if a person had been blessed with election by God, it would be naturally reflected in the abundance of blessings that surrounded him. If one is a member of the elect, one would live a righteous life and be abundantly blessed. The righteous life necessarily includes abstaining from “the world” which requires a black-and-white knowledge of what is righteous and what is worldly. Thus, a life devoted to and focused on Christ is primarily about one’s own moral behavior.

Furthermore, if one were to err, punishment would be the only way to ensure a truly repentant heart and a commitment to returning to the right path. Those who do not repent are in danger of eternal punishment.

The effects of this sort of moralization of Christianity are numerous and far reaching. The most important effect is that the significance of Christ for our lives, “following Jesus,” is primarily about not doing bad stuff simply for the sake of not doing it. We hear a lot of sermons and sing a lot of songs about following Jesus, giving him control of our lives, etc., etc. However, we rarely hear about what that should actually look like. We’re left to draw concrete conclusions from the abstraction of Christ as “the center” of our lives, and that has predictably resulted in the separation of Christians from the “sinful world” strictly for the sake of “not sinning” itself. Separation is, after all, the safest way to be a Christian, since it allows one to live in a protective bubble safe from the dangerous world. I’m not just talking about families who homeschool their kids and only have friends from church, etc. Even those who live in the world can still take Jesus’ command to not be “of it” as a prescribed morality. You can live among the sinners, just don’t be one of them–simply because you shouldn’t. Jesus and God just don’t want you to. There is no other reason given. The focus of our whole Christian life, what makes us distinct from the world, becomes the fact that we don’t participate in activities that are rather arbitrarily designated as sinful because they correlate with some notion of “what the world does.” If we abstain, pray sometimes, serve others sometimes, read the Bible, and go to church, we’re devoutly following Christ. Christianity becomes a life of inward contemplation with its outward signs restricted singularly to church-going, occasional service projects and negative action (i.e. I don’t do a, b, or c.)

In this familiar version of Christianity, sin becomes the barrier that keeps us from abstractions like “being close to God” and “following Christ.” But I don’t think either are primarily about “not sinning.” Scripture makes it pretty clear that to follow Christ, to be close to or love God, to be “in relationship” with both, to [insert any other relationship to the trinity you can think of], is accomplished in loving others in a such a way that radically subverts the worldly order–the orders of power, privilege, and the oppression that those naturally bring. When I love and serve those that seem impossible to love and serve, I am loving and serving Christ. If that becomes the focus of the Christian life, then sin takes on a very different role. It is that which prevents us from that love and service. It is that which we seek after and prioritize over that love and service. In other words, it is idolatry.

This understanding of sin is not new. I’m following a whole host of people (thinkers as far apart as D.A. Carson and Peter Rollins, for example) in defining sin as idolatry. We typically think of idolatry as one sin among many, another moral guideline, but that sort of thinking (that there is a list of rules which, once broken, constitute a list of sins) is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. If we conceive of sin in this way, we can begin to see that our moralization of sin has actually prevented us from identifying some really pervasive sin barriers. Our own comfort and security. Our privilege. Our politics. The prioritization of our allegiance to the nation-state. We can easily imagine how these might impair our ability to engage in selfless acts of mercy, justice, and compassion to those who are poor, oppressed, and helpless (which we also might say represent the bare minimum as expressions of a life devoted to Christ), let alone to develop a posture of service and humility, one in which relationship and solidarity with the “refuse of the earth” becomes a part of our very identities as Christians. We too become the scum of the earth. In an interesting, ironic twist, the moralized view of justice has in fact prevented us from actualizing what I think is clearly biblical justice.

This doesn’t suddenly mean that activity we once saw as sinful is no longer sinful. The reason for its categorization as sin as well as the contingent consequences of sin have changed. While the elimination of morality from our conception of sin may seem like I’m watering it down, the contingent consequences of sin are actually far more severe. Under the view I’ve outlined, sin not only has damaging consequences for us, but  In the next post, we’ll begin to look at the cosmic

The Hermeneutic of Love

Author’s Note: This is part of an essay I wrote for an ethics class last semester on political theology and love. I wrote it at the height of the presidential election, and it seemed appropriate at the time. In the wake of yesterday’s events with Jason Collins being the first major professional athlete to come out as a homosexual, and to see the dismal response from many right-wing Christians, I felt that it was once again appropriate.

Rarely can complex issues such as abortion (including the nature of personhood and when a fetus becomes a person), homosexual marriage, war, racial injustice and economic woes be condensed to bumper sticker slogans. Unfortunately, most political discourse is terribly reductionistic and deals only in short, quotable platitudes. Everything must be tweetable and sound-bite worthy.

Christians on both the right and the left have largely given in to the culture’s idea of what politics should be. Rather than standing above the fray and retaining our own unique voice, we’ve become just another voice in the mob making noise. In response to this, Ross Douthat says, “For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.”[1]

What seems to be infecting the church is a hermeneutic of fear and suspicion. Nothing is what it seems, the other is always against us, and anyone who disagrees with us is automatically our enemy.  The heart of the problem with American Christianity in regards to it’s political engagement is that we have bought into the lie that we must demonize our enemies. In so doing, we strip them of their personhood and their God-image. We enact violence on the other rather than show them love.  We have bought in to the us vs. them mentality that has come to dominate much political discourse in the last few decades. There also seems to be a move away from the Church as an inherently political institution. Politics have become either an-ecclesial or anti-ecclesial rather than realizing that there is no such thing as an a-political theology.

The counter to this is to embrace a hermeneutic of love, a hermeneutic that sees all of reality through the radical, self-giving love of Christ. We need to be driven by the absurd love demonstrated in Christ. As Glen Stassen and David Gushee say, “Jesus taught that participation in God’s reign requires the disciplined practices of a Christ-following counter-cultural community that obeys God by publicly engaging in working for justice and refusing to trust in the world’s power and authorities.”[2] The hermeneutic of love drives us not necessarily to do social justice in order to do evangelism, but to do social justice because we have a sincere love for the other and want what is best for them.

A hermeneutic of love begins with silence seeking understanding. Christians should be knowledgeable about the myriad complexities of any political issue before engaging. Graham Ward says, “The world is changing. And we have to understand how even if we get lost in the thickets when we try to sort out the complexities of why.”[3] If Christians are to be fair to their opponents, we must first understand what our opponents are saying and why they are saying it. To misrepresent an opponent’s position is to enact violence on that person and to sin against them by bearing false witness.[4]

The hermeneutic of love is also defined by an engagement with the Real against the Ideological. Christians are obligated to sort through the spin, the lies and the partisanship to pierce into the truth of things. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Without God, all seeing and perceiving of things and laws become abstraction.”[5] The Ideological engagement with politics consists of dealing in abstractions rather than loving real people. It is this dealing with abstractions that leads Christians to forget that at the other end of their scathing remarks and actions are real people created in the image of God with real problems and pains that need to be addressed. The hermeneutic of love always remembers that our decisions and rhetoric impact real people who need to know that they are loved.

The way forward for Christians consists of demonstrating the hermeneutic of love through the humility of repentance for our past wrongs. We must repent for not speaking out for the oppressed. We must repent for forgetting that on the other end of our chicken sandwiches and protests and tweets are real people who deserve to be loved and who possess the image of God. We must repent for forgetting that the woman who is seeking an abortion is in desperate need of love, not condemnation. We must repent for selling the gospel to our partisan (Republican or Democrat, Right or Left) political ideals.

The hermeneutic of love understands that we have been made free through the death and resurrection of Christ, but it understands that this freedom is not a freedom-for-ourselves but rather a freedom-for-the-other.[6] We are made free to be in loving relationship with the other in whom we encounter God. We do not seek our own good in the political process, but the good of the other. This has nothing to do with Utilitarian ideals, but with a concrete love for the other. It drives justice and humility for the Christian. Just as God has bound himself to us through the creation and the atonement, so the other is bound to us by our Christ-likeness.[7] We are free to give ourselves entirely to the other and to seek their well-being above our own.

Ultimately, the hermeneutic of love should be the driving force behind all that we do. There is no room for selfish political battles or for a culture war that leaves a trail of wounded people behind the righteous soldiers. The hermeneutic of love drives us beyond our books and institutions, beyond our gated communities and private schools, and beyond our selfish ambition to care for the neighbor, to seek justice for the oppressed, to love the outsider, and to heal the wounds caused by the dominating hermeneutic of fear.


[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 6.

[2] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 468.

[3] Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 23.

[4] See Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 47-62.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 49.

[6] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. John W. De Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 63.

[7] Ibid.

Nonviolence

Violence demands a response, and those who must respond hastily assume that the proper response to violence is more violence. But as followers of the Crucified One we respond to violence by nonviolently pointing to the One who bore the ultimate consequence of the wretchedness of humanity. We testify in word and deed to a radical nonviolence that is to be the new ethos of the created order.

In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts that the “retribution” Jesus speaks about in Matthew 5:28-32 is a “just retribution” that takes place “only in not resisting it.”[1]  Leviticus 24:20, the Old Testament law behind this teaching, assumes a divine retaliation, not a human one.[2]  As human agents we react to injustice against us not by assuming that it is our responsibility to right wrongs but God’s. “For the community of disciples, which makes no national or legal claims for itself, retribution means patiently bearing the blow, so that evil is not added to evil.”[3]  Nonviolent reaction to evil committed serves to show the ultimate allegiance of the church to Christ: “Our voluntary renunciation of counterviolence confirms and proclaims our unconditional allegiance to Jesus and his followers, our freedom, our detachment from our own egos.”[4]  The ethic of the church is Jesus.  This is not a rejection of cultural and political contexts but a grasping of Christ.  The church is not running away from politics but running toward Christ.  This is what the church is and must be to the world.

Bonhoeffer’s thesis is strengthened when considered in relation to Miroslav Volf’s work on memory. For Volf, the heart of the Christian faith lies not in the insistence that wrongs committed always deserve a response but in embracing the “risky territory marked by the commitment to love one’s enemies.”[5]  This happens not through remembering wrongdoing or forgetting about wrongdoing but remembering correctly with a desire that is fueled neither by hate or disregard but by love for the wrongdoer. This is not wishful thinking or neglect of justice; rather, “the obligation to remember is an extension of the obligation to attend to the wrongs committed.”[6]  Remembering rightly the wrong suffered by loving the wrongdoer and letting God be the one who enacts retribution is the Christian way of justice.

The ultimate act of violence has already been committed at the cross; Christians can remember correctly the wrongdoing of the other because God has made peace through violence.[7]  The gruesome killing of the Son of God is the epitome of violence, for it was against both God and man.  And the very fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead and vindicated by God means that violence is defeated because life is the new reality of the cosmos.  Violence became something that God did, once and for all.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. Dietrich Bonheoffer Works. Vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 132-33.  Bonhoeffer is not rejecting political and national ties here as such.  The bowing of the church in Germany to the Third Reich confused the religious and political allegiances of much of Germany.  Bonhoeffer is careful to not tie the church to any particular nation or culture but to Christ alone.

[4] Ibid., 133.

[5] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

[6] Ibid., 204.

[7] Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, xi.

Embracing the guilt of the neighbor

What responsibility do I have to my neighbor?  How am I to act toward them? With love. That is what the Bible tells me. That is what I believe. But I have been struggling through this question a lot in the last few years, lacking the necessary words to convey my thoughts. What must the church, the believer, be in its relation to the other? Even more, how do we, when wronged, love the one who wronged us?

How am I to forgive and love the man who slammed his 60,000 lb. cement truck into our family van, killing two girls under the age of 5 in the car behind us? How am I to be a Christ to the one whose actions drove my mother into alcoholism and caused me to be diagnosed with depression? How am I to love him? I profess Christ.  I have experienced the reality of grace. How do I, how does the church, love the other, especially when they are guilty?

I think this is a live question. It must be the church, the bride of Christ who, in her imperfection, witnesses to the perfection of her Bridegroom. In our brokenness, we love the neighbor because Christ has done the same thing with regard to humanity.

What I want to do in this post is to briefly place Luther and Bonhoeffer along side one another on the place of the neighbor in the life of the Christian. I don’t pretend to be an authority on either thinker or to have fully thought out every possible implication these extended quotations have for this or that particular issue. This post is at once a meditation on the necessity of the neighbor and a challenge to those who read this think through the shape and intensity of your external love toward the other.

In The Freedom of the Christian (1520), Luther writes the following,
 

“Everyone should ‘put on’ the neighbor and act toward him or her as if we were in the neighbor’s place. The good that flowed from Christ flows into us. Christ has ‘put on’ us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. The good we received from Christ flows from us toward those who have need of it. As a result, I should lay before God my faith and righteousness so that they may cover and intercede for the sins of my neighbor. I take these sins upon myself, and labor and serve in them, as if they were my very own. This is exactly what Christ did for us. This is true and sincere love and the rule of a Christian life.” [1]

Divine mercy has been dispensed to the church through faith in the event of Christ. In his assumption of human nature he has taken human reality up in to the divine life. Because of this reality (one that is simultaneously past, present, and future) I am to put on the neighbor. The church as it witnesses to the reality of Christ is the conduit of divine mercy.  The love of God flows through me to my neighbor. Instead of hindering it or quietly seeking to discern whether my neighbor is worthy of love, I love freely, for Christ loved freely. My love for the neighbor means bearing all that the neighbor is in love. For Luther, this meant even taking their sin and treating it as if they were my very own. To bear the other is stand in loving solidarity. The church has tasted the divine, and its witness to the world to come and taste this flowing fountain works itself out in bearing the weight of your neighbor’s very existence.

Like Luther, Bonhoeffer places the ethical action of the human agent squarely within the reality of what Christ has done,

“Jesus does not want to be considered the only perfect one at the expense of human beings, nor, as the only guiltless one, to look down on humanity perishing under its guilt. He does not want some idea of a new human being to triumph over the wreckage of a humanity defeated by its guilt. He does not want to acquit himself of the guilt by which human beings die. A love that would abandon human beings to their guilt would not be a love for real human beings. As one who acts responsibly within the historical existence of human beings, Jesus becomes guilty. It is his love alone, mind you, that leads him to become guilty. Out of his selfless love, out of his sinlessness, Jesus enters into human guilt, taking it upon himself.” [2]

Christ embraced the guilt of the world in assuming humanity. His love was such that he did not value his intrinsic righteousness while the world perished under the weight of sin and guilt. In assuming this alien guilt, Jesus acted responsibly. Our parents teach us that true responsibility is owning up to our obligations. Here, however, responsibility is radically redefined in light of the Christ event. The sin and guilt of all humanity, a byproduct of idolatry, pride, and rebellion, is taken into the divine life in the God-man Jesus Christ. In so doing, a rubric for truly responsible action is supplied to us,

“Because Jesus took the guilt of all human beings upon himself, everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty. Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in so doing they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event.” [3]

With Christ as my example, when I freely assume my neighbor’s guilt I become guilty. True responsibility means embracing the guilt of the world in love. Indeed, this is the requirement of all those justified by Christ. Those who seek to avoid the guilt associated with putting on the neighbor show themselves to be outside the bounds of the justified sphere in which Christ has acted. It is only in this engagement with the world that I found myself fully in the scope of God’s redeeming purposes, for in doing so I mirror Christ.

* Author’s Note – For a thorough treatment of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of accepting guilt, see Christine Schliesser’s Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty: Bonhoeffer’s Concept of Accepting Guilt


[1] Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed, 423
[2] Ethics, 275
[3] Ibid., 275-76

A Brief Discourse on Justice

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” – John Piper

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a post about John Piper or even fundamentalism per se. Taking them down is too easy, and frankly, they see enough abuse from other progressives. I say that because what I want to suggest in this post might at first sound rather pedestrian, some kind of banal plea for social justice. But stick with me. I intend to do a few posts about justice, so in this one, I’m just trying to lay out the primary tension and raise some really difficult questions.

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot since moving to Chicago. I now live in a city that suffers some of the worst systemic oppression in the country (not that Los Angeles is much better), and I live in a neighborhood (Rogers Park) that experiences a large portion of that. I live among people who, according John Piper’s understanding of justice, deserve some sort of punishment–not the justice that comes through the undoing of systemic oppression.

The understanding of justice posited above begs two important questions:

Is justice tied to morality, and if so, how?

Christians tend to think of justice in two fundamentally distinct ways: Legal and Social. Most Christians probably wouldn’t disagree with Piper, i.e. we need morality or else civilization degenerates into anarchy. I also don’t doubt that most Christians, including Piper, have a heart for the poor and oppressed. That varies widely in how it’s embodied, but I think most Christians today know that’s part of the program, and they want to participate, whether they really mean it or not. The problem is that these two categories aren’t divided so neatly. It’s not as if all those who suffer under systemic oppression are really saints with hearts of gold in desperate need of liberation. Many who would qualify under the Social probably also qualify under the Legal understandings of justice. So if we really want to stick to the legal/moral understanding of justice–that true justice punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous–we have to shuffle a bit if we also want to be biblical followers of Christ and address the social. In other words, it’s really tough to love a homeless drug addict with the love of Christ when you also feel pretty strongly that he should go to prison for stealing the money he needed to buy his drugs.

I know some might object to the idea that Jesus didn’t have a moral understanding of justice. He did, but not in the sense of bringing punitive justice to the rule-breakers. For Jesus, the true moral breach was living in a way that did not bring liberating justice to the poor and oppressed. That is his message to the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23:23, for example.)

Here’s the primary problem: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation?

Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable with our notion of “God’s love” exceeding our wildest expectations and definitions, yet when it comes to justice, we seem to want to limit God to an exact replica of our own penal system? Why wouldn’t “God’s justice” be just as radical as God’s love? And why wouldn’t those two things be tied together?

The typical response to this sort of question is, “Oh, but they are! You see, when a parent loves a child, she disciplines that child for the things he does wrong. It is just that the child be punished for the things he does wrong.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

1) We don’t love our criminals. That isn’t why we punish them. When we think of the people who are “going to hell,” we think of the “bad guys” (probably because it’s too painful to think of some atheist relative, but that’s a future post.) We want the people who have done us wrong punished. We want them to suffer a bit–or a lot. Most of us have never been wronged in any serious way by a criminal, yet we still demand punishment, mostly because we sense that it will make us safer. That’s what the Piper quote at the beginning is getting at. If there’s not punishment, all us civilized folk are going to be forced into a state of anarchy. That might be the case for describing a practical social structure. But that has less to do with some notion of maintaining morality for the sake of morality than it does just making sure we can walk safely on our own street (and I recognize that even those points are debatable.)

2) People who make the above claim always forget the second part of it: Forgiveness. The punishment doesn’t work the way the parent intends unless the child is allowed to return to the loving arms of the parent. If you’ve been scouring the gospels this whole time for the place where Jesus tells the adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11),  you need to ask yourself: If the woman did continue to sin, would Jesus not continue to welcome her back regardless of whether or not she repented? And that isn’t even the whole verse:

10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” [CEB]

Jesus doesn’t condemn her, and I think it would be hard to make the case that he would change his mind regardless of whether or not she followed his final instruction to her. (Of course, this is all ignoring that John 7:53-8:11 is a disputed section of the gospel anyway. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament don’t have it. So if one really wanted frame Jesus as a moralist out to nab the rule-breakers of the Ancient Near East, one would need to look elsewhere.)

The extreme tension in understanding what justice is according to Jesus comes when we try to reconcile our moralist sensibilities with the fact that Jesus welcomes everyone and doesn’t condemn them. That starts raising all sorts of grinding, insomnia inducing questions about murderers, sex offenders… Questions that cannot be written off or taken lightly, but questions that we’ll have to cover later.

There is only one group of people Jesus says are excluded from the his kingdom. He says everyone except those who wield power against the poor and oppressed are welcome in the kingdom of God. And it isn’t because there’s some sort of “sin force field” keeping the power wielders out. It’s that the kind of thing that the kingdom of God is is the kind of thing that they absolutely despise. Those on the outside, in the outer darkness that Jesus speaks of in Matthew, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth because they’re being horrifically tortured–it’s because the kindgom of God is an absolute affront to the power they hold so dear, and they just can’t stand it. They can’t bear to see God’s justice being handed down–not against them but for those they were against. The powerless coming to power.

It might seem like our notion of justice is a bit of a mess at this point. There’s a lot I haven’t addressed yet. We haven’t really defined “sin.” As I’ve alluded to, we haven’t talked about justice for victims of crime, especially violent crime, about justice for victims of despots like Hitler or Stalin. We haven’t talked about what forgiveness is or might look like in any of those situations. We haven’t touched the Old Testament at all. Those are all very important points. What I want to do in subsequent posts is tease out the ways in which even our conceptions of what justice should be like in these situations is challenged by the nature of God as I want to suggest it. For now though, let’s think about what the implications might be for the sort of justice I’m suggesting. What do we lose if we remove morality from the equation? What do we gain?